Democrats See Opportunities in California

Posted January 14, 2009 at 5:56pm

Congressional campaigns in California are almost always overshadowed by other political events, and 2010 won’t be any exception, with a multimillion-dollar gubernatorial election and several other statewide races also on tap.

But that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been significant early developments on the Congressional front in the Golden State.

Most pressing is the yet-to-be-scheduled special election to replace Rep. Hilda Solis (D), who is almost certain to be confirmed soon as the new secretary of Labor. Elsewhere:

• In the 4th district, Charlie Brown, the Democratic nominee who came achingly close to winning in 2006 and 2008 despite the conservative lean of the Sacramento suburbs, announced last week that he would not try again in 2010. That should ease the re-election path for freshman Rep. Tom McClintock (R).

• In the 11th district, the 2008 GOP nominee, former state Assemblyman Dean Andal, was in Washington, D.C., this week, making the case that he ran a strong campaign despite losing to Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) by 10 points. Andal said he may run again in 2010, but he doesn’t anticipate deciding for almost a year.

• Operatives in both parties are analyzing November’s election returns and assessing whether some districts in California, where competitive House races were almost nonexistent in the first few cycles of this decade, are on the verge of becoming true battlegrounds.

“Barack Obama carried eight of the 19 GOP-held Congressional districts here,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, a political tip sheet. “I know for darn tootin’ that [Democrats] are going to be looking at different seats here.”

After the 2000 Census, the two parties gerrymandered California’s 53 Congressional districts to make precious few of them competitive, and that trend has held for most of the decade. Democrats hold 34 seats and Republicans 19.

While the secretary of state’s office has not released district-by-district presidential election returns from 2008, Hoffenblum’s analysis of the results showed Obama doing far better in Republican-held and swing districts than other recent Democratic White House nominees. According to Hoffenblum, Obama won the districts held by GOP Reps. Dan Lungren, Elton Gallegly, Howard McKeon, David Dreier, Ken Calvert, Mary Bono Mack, John Campbell and Brian Bilbray, and won McNerney’s district, which had been considered a GOP stronghold at the presidential level, by almost 10 points.

Not coincidentally, Lungren, Bilbray and Calvert all had surprisingly tight re-election contests in November despite the fact that challengers received relatively little attention. Their districts are now in the Democrats’ sights, and Bill Hedrick (D), the teacher and union leader who finished just 6 points behind Calvert, is scheduled to be in D.C. next week to meet with party officials about a second bid in 2010.

Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, noted the Republican “close calls” in the Golden State in the previous cycle, and added, “there are a disproportionate number of ethically challenged Republican Members in California who will provide an opportunity for us.”

Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledged that “California is an ever-changing, demographically diverse state.” But he said that the redistricting plan put into place earlier this decade “minimized opportunities for both parties in the state.”

“If you take a look district-by-district, we should maintain advantages in Republican-held seats in places like the San Gabriel Valley, Orange and Riverside counties,” he said.

But before the partisan skirmishing can begin in earnest, Los Angeles-area voters must first choose a successor to Solis in a special election that hasn’t been scheduled yet. Solis has represented the ethnically diverse working-class suburbs east of Los Angeles since 2000, and the Democrats are a slam dunk to hold the 32nd district seat.

The special election lost its early frontrunner a few days ago, when state Sen. Gloria Romero (D), who had already begun a campaign to become state superintendent of public instruction in 2010, decided to stay in the statewide contest and not launch a Congressional bid.

“My passion is education,” explained Romero, who succeeded Solis in the Legislature. “I understand that education is the civil rights issue of our time — the great equalizer in America.”

Romero’s departure leaves state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D) and Judy Chu (D), chairwoman of the state Board of Equalization, as the leading candidates in the race. Emanuel Pleitez (D), a 26-year-old financial analyst who served on Obama’s transition team for the Treasury Department, is also running.

Conventional wisdom holds that in a district where the Hispanic population tops 60 percent, Cedillo should be the favorite if the field of candidates does not change significantly.

“We have to make sure that another heavyweight Latino doesn’t enter the race, because that would be the best thing for Judy Chu,” Hoffenblum said.

Still, Chu has some advantages, even in a head-to-head race with Cedillo. She is a former state Assemblywoman whose legislative district was almost completely within the boundaries of the Congressional district. And she has picked up key endorsements from several Latino political leaders.

Cedillo’s Senate district, on the other hand, only has a little overlap with the Congressional district, and Romero is his most significant local supporter so far.

Under California law, all candidates in a special Congressional election appear on the same ballot regardless of party. If no one tops 50 percent of the vote, the top finishers from each political party advance to a runoff.

Turnout in the special will be very low, meaning whichever candidate is endorsed by organized labor could have a distinct advantage — but just how low the turnout is will depend on timing. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and legislative leaders are considering scheduling a special statewide election on bond issues for April, which would presumably produce a slight uptick in voter turnout in the 32nd district if the Congressional special is held concurrently.

As the field begins to settle in the special election, Andal, the highly touted NRCC recruit who fell short in his challenge to McNerney last cycle, isn’t ready to pull the trigger on a rematch.

“I think it depends on the [national] environment,” he said in an interview. “The wise thing to do is to wait a year.”

But Andal and his consultants were making the rounds in Washington this week, armed with statistics designed to show that his surprising 10-point defeat in a district that Republicans had targeted was largely the product of national atmospherics.

“I don’t have to second-guess anything,” said Andal, who raised about $1.5 million for his race. “No one in the district is saying I ran a bad campaign.”

Some Republican strategists are suggesting that in McNerney’s district, which takes in part of the East Bay and part of the Central Valley, the GOP needs a candidate who hails from the more liberal East Bay part of the district and is a proven vote-getter there. Former state Assemblyman Guy Houston (R), who lost a bid for Contra Costa County supervisor last year, and former Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi (R), who is running for a seat on the state Board of Equalization in 2010, are mentioned as possibilities.

Spain said that regardless of the challenger, the NRCC is likely to make McNerney a target again.

“We still believe that Jerry McNerney remains out of step with the interests of middle-class families in San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties,” he said.

But Hoffenblum predicted that it will be Democrats on the offensive in California Congressional races next year.

With Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) being from California, “I’d be very surprised if they wouldn’t be scouting here,” he said.